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Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): May I caution the Minister? In some authorities, including my own—Liberal Democrat-run St. Albans—the literature that accompanied the waste collection was so badly worded that it caused utter confusion and had to be redrafted,
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rewritten and re-sent. [Hon. Members: “Recycled?”] Unfortunately, we have not had a Tory administration in St. Albans since 1997; otherwise, I am sure that we would have had a better service. Compounding that, we are now going over to a fortnightly putrescible waste collection, which is causing disturbance as well as raising concerns about smells, odours, flies and, indeed, infections. May I ask the Minister to keep a close eye on authorities that are going over to that system and to evaluate the situation after a reasonable time, as I am concerned that residents in my constituency are not being well served?

John Healey: In the end, the decision on whether to move towards collecting mainstream household waste every other week—in many areas where that happens, they also collect the recyclable waste at the same time—is clearly one for local authorities. I am sure that the hon. Lady will keep a close eye on the situation. We in central Government are interested to see the impact of these schemes, but in the end it is properly a decision—all Members would surely recognise this—for local authorities to take in view of what is best for their area and what can best help them achieve the recycling rates that this country requires over the next few years.

Council Housing (Disrepair)

6. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What steps she is taking to reduce the level of disrepair in council housing. [206426]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): In 1997, we inherited a £19 billion backlog of disrepair in council housing. To tackle that, we committed to making all social housing decent, which includes tackling disrepair. By 2010, more than £40 billion will have been invested in improvements to social housing, and work will have been completed on more than 3.6 million properties, improving the homes of 8 million people, including 2.5 million children.

Ms Keeble: I very much appreciate the track record that my hon. Friend has set out. Is he aware, however, that 31 local authorities, including Northampton borough council, will not meet the decent homes standards until after 2010, and that another 19 have arm’s length management organisations that do not yet have an investment programme, and no date has been given? What is the Department going to do to put pressure on those local authorities to deliver decent standard houses by 2010? I have to say that their failure to do so means that some of my constituents live in unacceptable standards of housing and some of the most vulnerable families live in harsh poor conditions.

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend is a true champion on behalf of Northampton and a real expert on housing issues. I have visited her constituency and we also discussed this matter in an Adjournment debate last year. I understand that, in January, Northampton borough council completed a consultation on a borough-wide housing strategy in which the priorities for housing in the borough were identified as increasing supply and improving the condition of the housing stock. I know
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that she is providing strong political leadership in her borough on this matter. I ask her to continue to flag it up to me so that we can continue to work together to minimise further slippage on disrepair.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the Minister agree that for people living in council areas where there is a history of disrepair and deprivation, there is a knock-on effect on the well-being of tenants, which often leads to low self-esteem, low educational attainment, depression and a reliance on drugs? Does he agree that it is therefore necessary for the Government to have a robust and external cyclical maintenance scheme in operation on a regular basis in order to improve the quality of life of people living in council houses?

Mr. Wright: The hon. Lady makes a really important point, because housing is a key indicator of life expectancy, educational attainments and general feelings of well-being. It is right for the Government to have moved forward by investing unprecedented sums of money in decent housing so that this generation does not have to face the enormous backlog of disrepair left by the previous Tory Administration.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the Minister use a departmental circular to remind local authorities of their moral obligation—quite apart from their legal obligations—to ensure that when they allocate houses, the fixtures and fittings are there and the house is clean? Far too often, my constituents and, I think, those of other hon. Members, complain to us about the callous disregard of housing departments, including Thurrock borough council, that allocate dirty and squalid housing units that are falling apart as a result of inadequate fittings. That has got to stop, as these people are under a lot of—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that this supplementary question has to stop.

Mr. Wright: My hon. Friend has made an important and serious point. When there are voids and when housing is reallocated by a council or housing association, that provides a good opportunity to ensure that any necessary repairs are carried out and any necessary health and safety measures undertaken. I shall go back to the Department and consider what he has said.

Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) (Con): Given that the Government’s expenditure of £12 billion on decent homes standards has increased the number of homes that meet those standards by only 14 per cent., given that they now admit that there is no chance of their meeting the 2010 target on decent homes, and given that a record 1.7 million families are on council housing waiting lists, is it not about time the Minister admitted that the Government are letting down the very people whom they claim to represent?

Mr. Wright: I may have misheard what the hon. Gentleman said, but I do not think he declared any interests in housing policy in regard to private contractors.

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I think that the hon. Gentleman is missing a trick. We ought to consider where we have come from, and what we have achieved over the past 11 years: 580,000 new kitchens, 440,000 new bathrooms, 910,000 new central heating systems and—here I follow the trail of answers given by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda)—the rewiring of 630,000 council houses to ensure that they meet fire and safety requirements. The hon. Gentleman’s party created an appalling backlog in repairs and maintenance, but this Government have tackled it.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I welcome the decent homes target, but does my hon. Friend accept that council house management and maintenance allowances are far too low and below the level required for the decent homes standard to be met? Incidentally, we inherited that legacy from the Opposition.

Mr. Wright: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s expertise in housing matters. His local arm’s length management organisation, Bolton At Home, is a fine example of what can be achieved in the context of decent homes. I can tell him that management and maintenance allowances per dwelling have increased from about £1,031 in 2001-02 to £1,721 in 2008-09, which constitutes an average real-terms increase of 4.6 per cent. per annum.

We are examining the whole principle behind the financing of council housing, and will report shortly. One of the issues that will be examined is management and the maintenance allowance.


7. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What assessment she has made of the impact on the summer floods of 2007 of householders concreting over front gardens; and if she will bring forward proposals for planning permission to be sought prior to such alterations being carried out. [206427]

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): Two thirds of the homes that were flooded during last summer’s floods were flooded by the run-off from surface water. That is why the Government announced in February that, in future, people would need planning permission to pave over front gardens when the material used makes the surface impermeable.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister will know that 5,500 householders have been unable to return home, and that about a quarter of them are still living in caravans. To what extent has he implemented the conclusion in the Pitt report that no householder or business owner should of right be able to add any impermeable surface to his property? Will he support the Land Use (Garden Protection) Bill, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), which will be presented to the House in due course?

John Healey: The hon. Lady is right. Figures that I published today suggest that 5,500 householders are still not fully back in their own homes, and although the number living in caravans has fallen by some 1,000
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over the last couple of months, it is still about 1,400. Progress has been made, but more needs to be done over the next few months.

As the hon. Lady said, one of the drainage recommendations in the Pitt report was that people should have to obtain planning permission if they wished to hard-pave their front gardens. We will implement that recommendation from October.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend goes down the planning consent route, will he acknowledge that a charge is incurred by local people who make planning applications for developments of this kind? Will he instead go down the building consent route, which would mean informing all contractors in the area that they must abide by the regulations laid down by their local authority on water containment?

John Healey: The best approach to deal with the particular problem of increased run-off as a result of paved front gardens is the planning permission route. We are looking at whether, having implemented that in October this year, we should apply similar standards to non-domestic properties such as offices, industry and car parks. My hon. Friend may like to know that we will produce guidance on how householders can pave over their front gardens without using impermeable materials that will require planning permission.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The many thousands of houses that were tragically flooded last summer, partly because of the concreting over of front gardens, will not be helped in any shape, size or form by the prevention of that in the future, because the concrete that is there already will still be there unless the Government intend to make the measure retrospective. What is important is that gardens as a whole should be preserved—not just front gardens, but all gardens. Will the Government therefore ask the planning system to take a look at garden grabbing? We need to keep our gardens in our town areas. If we do that, that is where the water goes, so never mind setting up an army of spies to look into whether people are planning applications for their front gardens.

John Healey: That is a matter for local authorities as local planning authorities, and they take such issues into account where they are relevant.

Community Groups

8. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What progress has been made on proposals for the transfer of assets to community groups; and whether the proposals in the empowerment White Paper will affect this process. [206428]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): Since May last year, community groups have been assisted on asset transfer projects in 20 areas, the Cabinet Office has allocated £30 million in refurbishment grants, and there is new guidance for local authorities. The White Paper will build on that, and in particular propose a new right for citizens which will ensure that councils consider proposals to transfer underused properties or land to community ownership.

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Linda Gilroy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, and I particularly welcome the emphasis she placed on the transfer of land. Does she agree that community land trusts have a particularly important role to play in achieving a permanently affordable stock of intermediate housing, and will she encourage the transfer of assets to such trusts?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend has an extremely good record of being imaginative and innovative and of supporting such projects in her area. We now have 14 community land trust pilots—overseen by Salford university—in both rural and urban areas. In some of the rural areas, we already have people occupying the homes that have been built in this way. This is a very imaginative way of ensuring that affordable housing remains for the long term. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) later today to consider how we can press on further with this agenda.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I thank her for seeing me about the Cashes Green site—and I also look forward to hosting the Under-Secretary when he comes to Stroud. What progress is being made on the pilots, and when will the full report eventually be produced by Bob Paterson and others?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend is also extremely supportive on these issues, and I know he has been imaginative in taking them forward in his own area. I can promise him that there will be a report on the pilots. He will know that there are still some technical issues to be explored, particularly in relation to the urban pilots, which are on a broader scale and therefore require more work to be done. I will make sure that we come forward with our proposals as soon as we can, as I understand that there is a pressing need to get a proper framework for this way of working. Not only community land trusts but community ownership in general can ensure that organisations are sustainable for the long term, with an income stream that means they are less dependent on grants from local authorities. That is why such trusts are such an important part of the Government’s business.

Preventing Violent Extremism Programme

9. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the preventing violent extremism programme. [206429]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Hazel Blears): I have held regular meetings with a range of partners, including Muslim communities, the police, the Local Government Association, parliamentarians from both Houses and others with an interest in the preventing violent extremism programme. We are working closely with these partners at every level—local, national and international—to build the resilience of local communities so that they are able to stand up to the messages of extremism.

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Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Can we be sure that, in pursuing her laudable aim of combating Islamic extremism and fundamentalism, the right hon. Lady conducts a very thorough audit of the Islamic bodies that participate in these schemes and receive Government recognition? Can she also say whether the Muslim Brotherhood, which is an extremist organisation, participates in any way in the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board or any of its contributing bodies?

Hazel Blears: The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is extremely important that, in allocating our funding to local authorities, we have a good degree of reassurance about the kind of projects funded. We are about to embark on a three-year programme involving £45 million for local authorities, so I am absolutely determined to ensure that we will fund projects that really help to build the resilience of local communities. The local police are closely involved with local authorities in making these funding decisions at local level. The Government offices are being strengthened to ensure that there is extra reassurance. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, despite the fact that this money is, in general, local government grant, I want to make absolutely sure that after 12 months we look at the situation again.

On the organisation to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, I am extremely keen to ensure that we continue with our policy of engaging with the groups that are prepared to stand up and tackle and condemn extremism. That will be the continuing policy, and wherever people are not in that category, they are not groups with which we wish to collaborate in our endeavours to tackle extremism.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I am encouraged by that response. Will the Secretary of State confirm that part of the money allocated to this programme will be used to try to convey to young Muslim people the message of senior Muslim scholars that the use of violent extremism in political causes is essentially un-Islamic?

Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, and a key part of our strategy is to tackle the ideology perpetrated by extremists. It is absolutely vital that young people, and also women, have the ability, knowledge and skills to stand up and combat these messages. That is why we have an extensive programme of work with women. There is the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, and I intend to have a similar group of young people who will be empowered to take on leadership roles and to play a much larger part in their communities. This is the point at which we move from small projects that reach a few people, to trying to get the message across not just to the Muslim community but to all our communities that it is the voice of the overriding, law-abiding majority that we must hear, and that we must tackle this ideology, which threatens our communities.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware of claims that the Muslim Association of Britain—one of the four founder members of MINAB, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) referred—is, in effect, the British arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Has she carried out an assessment of this claim and can she definitively say to the House that it is untrue?

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Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman will know that the founding partners of MINAB are those organisations that have committed to having proper standards in their mosques, and to being part of our policy of standing up and condemning and tackling Muslim extremism. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that checks are carried out regarding all the organisations that we fund. There was some question recently—it was perhaps raised by the hon. Gentleman—about the Cordoba Foundation, in Tower Hamlets. That organisation was not funded under our preventing violent extremism programme. The local authority in Tower Hamlets was going to engage with the Cordoba Foundation; it decided not to, and that was absolutely the right decision. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that these checks are carried out, and I am determined that we will fund organisations that want to stand up and encourage the mainstream, moderate Muslim majority in this country to feel strong enough to rebut these messages of hate and extremism that threaten a minority of our community, but which nevertheless constitute a very serious and important threat.

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